Friday, November 30, 2012

Review of Cypress Grove by James Sallis (2003, No Exit Press)

Turner is hiding out in the woods somewhere between Memphis and nowhere.  He keeps to himself, letting life drift by until Sheriff Lonnie Bates turns up on his porch seeking help with a murder.  Following a stint in Vietnam, Turner became a Memphis detective, but after shooting his partner was sent to prison.  There he hit the books and studied for a degree and on release built a new life for himself, before abandoning that too for the woods.  Bates cares little for Turner’s past; unused to investigating a violent death he needs his skills.  And deep down Turner needs Bates’ compassion and friendship.  Accepting the challenge, Turner starts on the trail of identifying the dead drifter and who killed him, and of slipping back into society.

Cypress Grove is oddly captivating.  It’s not a page-turner in the sense of a high powered thriller, but rather it hooks the reader in a quiet, understated way.  Sallis’ storytelling kind of just drifts along regardless of dramatic moments, sketching out a portrait of an essentially good man whose life has been punctuated by terrible moments: being drafted to Vietnam, killing his partner, killing a prison inmate just prior to being released; all of them somehow beyond his control.  Sallis’ is a noted poet and essayist as well as novelist and it shows in his writing, which has a lyrical cadence and some lovely turns of phrase.  The story is told through two intersecting plotlines that alternate across chapters; one in the present; the other Turner’s back story.  It’s an effective structure, providing a series of interesting counterpoints.  The plot itself is relatively straightforward and Turner solves the case quite easily, but the puzzle is hardly the main focus of the story, rather it's Turner’s journey and the unfolding of his re-integration into life and law enforcement.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Another grant crosses the line

I had confirmation yesterday of the awarding of another research grant, this one for €1.1 million, which is to be shared between a couple of partners.  Our part concerns cross-border planning, shared services, all-island datasets and mapping/analysis tools, and training courses.  The team put in a great effort to get this across the line.  This November has been pretty kind to me: the ERC grant, the new grant; and signing a novel contract with Snubnose Press.  And by this time next year I will no longer be director of NIRSA (or NCG).  Not often one gets a million euro grant; two in one month is unlikely to ever happen again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Scoop It! Crime novel reviews

I came across a new social media platform - Scoop It! - a couple of days ago.  I liked the idea and format - curating your own 'online magazine' by pulling in content from and linking across the internet.  Yesterday I created my own account and set up three curations:

Blue House and Co Crime Novel Reviews
The Programmable City
Planning Ireland

I've populated each with some content which I'll update on a rolling basis.  I'm using the Crime Novel Reviews page to link to reviews that catch my personal interest (rather than trying to capture as many reviews as possible) and also to link to my own reviews.  In all three curations I see the primary purpose as twofold: a kind of visual/text summary of and links to pieces I'm interested in; a useful resource for others interested in the topic.  Worth checking out, I think.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller (Headline, 2012)

Bell Elkins is the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, deep in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.  A native of Acker’s Gap, she grew up in a series of foster homes but escaped to Washington DC before returning to the poverty-stricken area, blighted by a growing drugs problems, bringing her daughter, Carla, in tow.  Carla, who has turned into a surly, resentful teenager is waiting in a diner for her mother when a gunman enters and shoots dead three elderly men.  Sheriff Nick Fogelsong and his team start to investigate, with Bell tagging along seeking evidence that will enable a successful prosecution once the killer is caught.  But Bell’s attention is being diverted by the well-being of her daughter, another case that is coming to trial, and the upcoming parole hearing for her sister.  Unwittingly, however, she has become the target of the killer’s ire.

A Killing in the Hills has a number of strengths: a strong and vivid sense of place; good contextualisation with respect to society in West Virginia and the problem of prescription drugs addiction; and an interesting pair of lead characters in Bell and Nick.  These are countered by some notable weaknesses: a tendency to melodrama, often too much tell rather than show, and credibility with respect to the main plotline.  With respect to the latter, I just simply didn’t believe certain elements of the story such as Bell’s daughter not telling the police what she knows for fear of being grounded; that Bell’s sister was still in prison given the circumstances underpinning her crime, nor that her sister, a lawyer, had not tried to get her out; the resolution with killer (who was little more than a caricature) made little sense to me, nor did the ‘criminal mastermind’ behind the whole episode.  In contrast, the plotline with respect to the child’s death was very nicely done.  In sum, whilst the story had its merits it gradually became less and less plausible and I became more and more disengaged.  Overall then, Bell and Acker’s Gap have quite a bit of promise, but I found this initial outing hard going at times.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

A cow jumped the dry stone wall into garden on Friday night. As the farmer went to open gate to let it back out it jumped back across the wall onto the road again.  One crazy cow!  I spent part of yesterday morning out in the freezing fog rebuilding the wall whilst the offending cow stood in the field opposite supervising my efforts through a gap in the hedge. It didn't seem very impressed. 

My posts this week:
"Developers need to be judged fairly now"?
Review of The Great Crash 1929 by JK Galbraith
Review of The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg
Big data, Obama's campaign, and social and political analysis
We need an ark

Saturday, November 24, 2012

We need an ark

Harry stood at the window and stared at the lashing rain, the water in the street rising slowly.  Another inch and it would reach the front door.

‘This is unbelievable, we need an ark not a house.’

‘Don’t just stand there like a spare part!’ Emma snapped.  ‘We need to get what we can upstairs.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like everything!  The television, the books, the knick-knacks, the crap in the kitchen cabinets.’

‘We don’t have time.’


‘What we need is a big boat; the river’s burst its banks.’

‘Just do it, Harry.  Or you’ll need more than a new home.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Big data, Obama’s campaign, and social and political analysis

There have been a few news stories over the past couple of weeks with respect to President Obama’s use of big data in his election campaign (references linked in the text below).  Having just finished Sasha Issenberg’s recent book, The Victory Lab, I’ve been reflecting on the use and potential of big data for social and political analysis, and in particular what it might mean if the Obama campaign’s database was made available for social scientists and policy makers to analyze.  Rather than simply being used to help a candidate get elected, could the data be put to other productive uses?  Here’s my initial thoughts.

The use of very large datasets to underpin social and political analysis is nothing new.  Censuses are enormous undertakings, involving the surveying of whole populations with respect to a diverse range of factual information.  The data produced typically consists of dozens of large tables consisting of hundreds of variables relating to millions of people and thousands of locations.  Similarly, other social research instruments, such as household surveys and political polls, generate data with respect to a large, representative sample of the population and typically ask the respondent a range of topical questions.  Such datasets provide valuable, detailed and representative data with respect to people and places.  In the case of censuses, such data are used to underpin a wide variety of studies, to create other derived data and information, and to guide the formulation of public policy and shape company marketing and expansion strategies.  Given their size, complexity and cost, such surveys are only conducted on a periodic basis.  For example, censuses are typically held every ten years.  Political polls are usually only conducted prior to and during elections. 

The difference between these kind of surveys and their resulting data, and so-called big data, is not principally volume, but rather being able to conduct such surveys on a rolling basis, coping with issues of velocity (the speed at which data are generated) and variety (diverse kinds of data).  A good example of the production and use of big data which is political and social in nature is by Barack Obama’s campaign team in the 2008 and 2012 US elections.

As detailed by Issenberg (2012), Obama’s team sought to quantify and track all aspects of their campaigns in 2008 and 2012, devising a whole series of metrics that were continuously mined for useful information, patterns and trends.  This included monitoring their own actions, such as placing ads across different media, undertaking mail shots, ringing up potential voters, knocking on doors and canvassing areas, organising meetings and rallies, tracking who they’d spoken to or attended and what they had said or committed to, as well as trying to quantify the more ineffable elements, such as the relative value or effect of being approached by a neighbour, stranger or automated system, or the extent to which potential voters were undecided, or the ways in which members of the populace could be persuaded to change their mind on an issue or candidate or be motivated to get out and vote.  They supplemented this information with hundreds of randomized, large-scale experiments designed to test the effectiveness of different ways of persuading voters to back Obama, such as comparing the effectiveness of different modes of contact and how the message was phrased.  This experimentation also included tests of the layout and design of websites such as and how effective different tweaks to the site were for increasing engagement, volunteering and donations.  For example, one test evaluated the effects of changing the ‘sign up’ button to ‘learn more’, ‘join us now’, ‘sign up now’; over the course of 300,000 visits it became clear that ‘join us now’ led to a twenty percent increase in people registering with the site (Issenberg 2012). 

Obama’s team combined all the information they generated with respect to voters with registration data, census and other government data, polling surveys, and data bought from a whole range of suppliers, including general, commercial data aggregators, credit ratings agencies, and cable TV companies.  The result was a set massive databases about every voter in the country consisting of a minimum of eighty variables (Crovitz 2012), and often many more, relating to a potential voter’s demographic characteristics, their voting history, every instance in which they had been approached by the Obama campaign and their reaction, their social and economic history, their patterns of behaviour and consumption, and expressed views and opinions, with the databases updated daily during the campaign as new data was produced or bought.  The resulting databases ended up containing billions of pieces of data.  In cases where Obama’s analysts did not know the political affiliation of a voter, and they could not access this through direct contact, they used a sophisticated algorithm to use what variables they did have to predict a person’s likely voting preference, much in the same way that predicts what books people might like based on what other people who have a similar purchasing profile bought (Issenberg 2012).  In this way they could individually profile voters, assess if they were likely to vote and how, and how they might react to different policies and stories.  This was complemented by a highly detailed knowledge of what forms of communication worked best for different kinds of voters.

For the 2012 election, Obama’s data analytics group was five times larger than in 2008 and included leading technologists hired from industry (Scherer 2012).  The team improved the relationality of data collected through different sources and residing in different databases so that they could be more effectively linked together.  They developed campaign apps and used social media such as Facebook to encourage peer pressure to register and to get out the vote, and dropped their own and third-party cookies onto the computers that visited their websites to track online habits (Crovitz 2012; Kaye 2012).  They also improved their profiling and predictive modelling and how the information from their analytics were used to direct the campaign, as well as testing and honing ways to raise finance to fund the campaign (Scherer 2012).  And they continuously added and processed new data and ran simulations to predict outcomes and the best responses.  As one campaign official stated: “We ran the election 66,000 times every night” to determine the odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources” (quoted in Scherer 2012).

By continuously running their evolving datasets through sophisticated algorithms, Obama’s team gained significant advantages over their rivals both in gaining the nomination in 2008 and winning the elections in 2008 and 2012.  First, they were able to micro-manage the running of their campaign across all states, directing resources to where they were needed and analytically assessing the effectiveness of those resources.  If outside agencies were used, such as phone vendors, the services they offered were monitored against agreed targets and let go if they were not performing sufficiently well (half of the ten companies were dropped in the 2008 campaign: Issenberg 2012).  Second, they could monitor unfolding events and conditions in particular locales and respond quickly if necessary.  Third, they could micro-target approaches to individuals and general advertising.  With respect to the latter, they could tailor adverts to specific demographics and places.  For example, in several cities Obama’s campaign bought advertising on selected bus routes based on the profile of who travelled those specific routes, or for particular sporting events, or for specific non-primetime television slots, or online sites popular with certain youth segments.  Such micro-targeting of individuals, locales and events was unheard of a decade earlier when advertising consisted of mass-broadcast on radio and TV in peak slots or mass mail shots.  Fourth, they could use their resources efficiently, directing attention at floating and new voters, minimising the effects of alienating or annoying the electorate who were committed to Obama and other candidates or who had already voted (taking advantage of early voting), and on election day tracking who had voted and making sure the remaining likely Obama voters got to the polls.  As Issenberg (2012: 246) argues, Obama’s 2008 campaign was the “the perfect political corporation: a well-funded, data-driven, empirically rigorous institution”.  It was no different in 2012.

What is noteworthy is that the Obama team’s use of big data is highly resource intensive involving the work of thousands of people in a huge crowdsourcing effort, bought databases, sophisticated software, networked infrastructure, and a lot of organisational skill and finance capital to make it all happen.  Indeed, the estimated bill for the 2008 presidential campaign across all parties was $2.8bn and for 2012 $2.6bn (Center for Responsive Politics 2012).  It is perhaps no surprise therefore that such a big data project only arises in such a well resourced campaign, or with respect to nationwide, large-scale, profitable commercial endeavours such as credit ratings. 

Given the political value of the data assembled by Obama’s team, and the commercial origins of much of it, as far as I am aware it has not been made available, in part or full, as open data in aggregated form (to avoid issues of privacy infringement) for others to mine and analyze.  This is a shame as it is no doubt one of the richest social and political datasets in the world given the diverse and rich range of individual variables included from a variety of sources.  Rather than simply being used to help get a candidate elected, the data could be put to productive use for analysing a range of social, demographic and economic issues, and be used to underpin and evaluate data-driven policy analysis and formulation at local, state and national scales.  I’ve little doubt that it could keep an army of social scientists occupied for a number of years and lead to detailed secondary analysis that to date have been difficult to undertake, fresh empirical and theoretical insights, and new policy suggestions across a diverse set of issues.

Despite Obama’s success at harnessing big data, at present, the use of big data for social and political analysis is limited for a number of reasons, the prime ones being resourcing and focus.  There is no doubt that if academics could afford to buy access to commercially generated data, and to combine them in different ways with public and other commercial datasets, they could tackle a whole range of interesting and valuable questions about contemporary society.  The same could be said if they were able to run very large-scale, rolling experiments, as Obama’s team were able to do.  Social science research budgets are, however, small - much smaller than Obama’s campaign budget - spread across thousands of academics and research teams, and under increasing pressure with cutbacks in public sector spend.  Moreover, the data available through social media APIs, whilst useful, was never designed to answer social science questions, are riddled with anonymous and dirty data, and at best provide proxy data.  Nevertheless, there is much emerging potential in crowdsourcing, open data, and mining new social media to reveal insights into social and political phenomena, and such research looks set to expand rapidly over the next decade or so.  It would certainly be given a significant boost if Obama’s big data machine could be made available to social scientists and policy makers and not just used for electioneering.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg (Crown, 2012)

In The Victory Lab, Issenberg charts the use of scientific methods in the practice of electioneering in US politics.  What’s fascinating about his account is that up until very recently there was very little science behind how elections were conducted, and there’s been a noticeable disconnect between political science and the electioneers. The strategy was simply one of blanket advertising across different media, mail shots, debates, mudslinging and rallies.  There was little attempt to scientifically measure and evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches, or to segment and target populations.  Drawing on his own experience of a journalist covering elections and interviews with a number of key players, Issenberg provides an account of the rise of data and statistically-driven campaigning in the US, culminating in Obama’s election in 2008.  Because the chapters are arranged by chronology and by particular groups/campaigns, the structure tends to move to-and-fro a little.  That said, the narrative it easy enough to follow, and the text is lively, engaging and informative.  Somewhat oddly, there seems to have been no attempt to learn anything from elections outside of the US, and Issenberg’s narrative barely strays beyond US shores.  Overall, what the book demonstrates is the US elections are now being run like lab-experiments, underpinned by big data and statistical algorithms, and they’re set to follow this approach for the foreseeable future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review of The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith (Penguin, 1954)

The Great Crash 1929 is considered by many to the classic account of the 1929 stock market crash that sent the US and much of the world into deep economic depression.  Written by JK Galbraith, one of the leading economic historians of the twentieth century, it is a surprisingly thin volume, split into ten chapters.  Galbraith’s analysis very much focuses on the stock market, financiers and government in the immediate lead up to the crash, the crash itself and its aftermath with respect to Wall Street.  How the crash played out in other locales or countries is barely touched upon.  Nor is the Great Depression that follows, except in cursory terms.  This is a pity, because it would have more explained the role of the great crash in the development and unfolding of the depression and crises domestically and around the globe and given a wider appreciation of the crash’s long-term, deep consequences. His analysis also relies heavily on reports, newspaper accounts and other secondary sources rather than primary research, such as interviewing key players.  The overall effect is a narrowly focused, rather dry account of the crash.  Nonetheless, the narrative does highlight that many of the factors that were important in the global financial collapse of 2008 replicated those of the Great Crash, and the crash itself unfolded in a similar fashion.  Whilst many lessons were learnt and policy changes implemented post The Great Crash, over the past couple of decades those regulations and practices were systematically undone in the belief that history would not repeat itself.  Unfortunately, there are sound reasons why strong financial regulation is a good idea as Galbraith’s book and recent history demonstrate.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lazy Sunday service

I've been working my way through The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg about the evolution of electioneering and political science in the US over the past hundred years; the art and science of reaching and persuading voters and getting them to the polls.  What is interesting has been the disconnect between political science and political parties, their machinery and political consultants, with neither academics or practioners really fully understanding voters and voting, with few attempts to scientifically test the veracity of newspaper and tv ads, mail shots, phone calls, doorstepping, personal appearances, political rallies, and so on.  I suspect it's going to end with a discussion of Obama's data machine.  A good read so far. 

My posts this week:
Review of A Dark Place to Die by Ed Chatterton
Review of Cadaver Blues by J.E. Fishman
Landed the 'big one'
Review of Money Shot by Christa Faust
A front seat view across the valley

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A front seat view across the valley

The car jolted forward, pitching towards the barrier and the drop down the mountain.

‘Fuck,’ Mac spluttered, coffee dribbling down his chin, a stain blossoming on his white shirt.  He yanked the steering wheel left and glanced up at the rear view mirror.

A white van filled the back window.

The car shuddered again, metal groaning.

‘For fuck’s sake!’  Mac jammed on the brake, fighting for control.

The road started to veer left.

He tried to follow, but the weight and speed of the van slid the car onwards. 

And then he was flying. 

Then plummeting and spinning. 



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review of Money Shot by Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime, 2008)

Angel Dare spent ten years in front of the camera in the porn industry in LA before setting up her own adult modelling agency, Daring Angels.  When she’s rung up by a long time friend and asked to do a scene at short notice with a rising male star almost half her age she agrees to step in front of the camera for one last time.  Only things don’t go to plan when she arrives, with her being beaten, raped, thrown in the trunk of a car and shot.  Left for dead she manages to escape only to find she’s the main suspect in a murder investigation.  Rather than handing herself in, she decides to seek vengeance against those who have framed her, joining forces with an ex-cop turned security guard.  Her attackers might have gotten the better of her when she was unawares, but as a woman wronged she’s a different proposition, prepared to enact her own brand of justice.

In Money Shot Christa Faust pulls few punches; the story is noir to its core.  Set in the porn industry the narrative could have slipped into a moral sermon of sorts or sensationalism, instead Faust portrays the various aspects of the trade in a matter of fact way, including some of its criminal elements such as sex trafficking.  The telling is engaging, with a strong voice and a quick pace.  The characterisation is a little thin beyond Angel Dare, but this is very much her story and she’s a complex lead character: vulnerable and resilient, worldly-wise and naive, forward but self-conscious.  The plot is relatively straightforward with a couple of nice tension moments and the ending is pure noir.  The only thing that didn’t quite sit right was the set-up: the person who is meant to kill her is totally inept and given her own treatment and injuries going on the run rather than to the police didn’t seem to add up and it felt like a plot device.  Other than that, Money Shot was bang on the money. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Landed the ‘big one’

I’m delighted to say I’ve been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Investigator award for my project ‘The Programmable City’, receiving €2.3m over 5 years.  The awards are tagged ‘Europe’s most prestigious grants’ and they’re highly competitive - only 3 or 4 awards per year have been made to date with respect to the SH3 panel (Environment and Society, to which I applied) across the 39 eligible countries.  Since 2008 only 6 such awards have been made across all disciplines/panels to researchers in Ireland.  In other words, I’m really fortunate to be receiving one of the awards.  It will buy me out on a 0.5 basis from my present duties as well as funding two 5 year postdocs, two 4 year postdocs, four 4 year PhD students, one replacement lecturer, and 0.5 admin.  The research institute I run has now secured two such grants: a starting award to Sean O’Riain and an advanced award for myself, which is a great achievement.  The two grants are complementary to an extent so hopefully we can build a really strong team of researchers in the coming years.  I’m now hoping to step to the side from my head of department duties from next August (which I’ll have done for 11 years) to concentrate on delivering the new project as well as continuing my work on existing funded projects.  Really looking forward to it. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review of Cadaver Blues by J.E. Fishman (Stonegate Ink, 2012)

Phouc Goldberg runs his own business conducting debt relief negotiation - for a fee he’ll argue on behalf of his poverty-stricken customers with their creditors over outstanding debts that cannot be repaid and help consolidate debts.  Used to being treated like the ‘little Asian guy’ he has anger management issues and little sympathy for his clients.  When Mindy Eider asks him to intervene in the foreclosure on her uncle’s house, he agrees despite his reservations.  His efforts quickly run into a brick wall, but beguiled by Mindy’s beauty and innocence he agrees to play detective.  Mindy’s uncle has vanished, the bank is in a hurry to foreclose, and several parties seem interested in the property.  Something fishy is going on, but getting answers is proving difficult, though there are definite signs of foul play.  Moreover, Mindy acts of kindness to strangers are wearing down his cynicism.  He’s soon out of his depth, but determined to solve the case and get the girl.

Cadaver Blues is a competently written, mildly amusing crime novel.  The narrative is all show an no tell, with the story told through short, snappy scenes.  The characterisation is well realised, with Phouc Goldberg being particularly engaging as a hardnosed cynic - written as a kind of love to hate figure but with a decent, kindness very well buried under his abrasive exterior, and he’s accompanied by some nicely penned supporting actors.  The story is well plotted and unfolds at a brisk pace.  My only reservation is it all felt a bit formulaic, with the story lacking real spark and a captivating hook that raised it up out of the pack, and I never really believed the premise underpinning why the house was being foreclosed or who was behind the mystery.  Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read and the Phouc holds much promise as the lead character in a new series.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of A Dark Place to Die by Ed Chatterton (Arrow, 2012)

When Stevie White returns to Liverpool, the city where he was born shortly before his mother emigrated to Australia, he never expected to be tied to a scaffold pole, tortured and burned alive on Crosby beach, a new addition to Antony Gormley’s art work ‘Another Place’.  DI Frank Keane is first to the scene, quickly joined by the ambitious DI Emily Harris.  Somewhat awkward collaborators, they both sense the murder is the work of one of the city’s notorious drugs gangs but have little evidence to go on.  As they slowly try to solve the case on the other side of the world Keane’s former boss, Menno Koopman, is enjoying retirement with his partner, Zoe, running a coffee business on Australia’s east coast.  He has no desire to return to Liverpool, but Stevie is Koopman’s son, the product of a teenage fling and he feels compelled to travel back and seek justice.  Keane is conflicted between helping his former boss and keeping him at arm’s length, but Koopman’s presence in the city has started a chain-reaction he can’t control both there and in Australia.

A Dark Place to Die has four standout strengths.  First, the characterization is excellent, with even the minor characters having a well-defined persona.  Second, there is a vivid sense of place both with respect to Liverpool and the various locations in Australia.  Third, Chatterton provides realistic and compelling contextualisation with respect to the drug gangs and trade in both locales.  Fourth, the story is for the most part nicely plotted and well paced, managing to keep two parallel but intertwined plotlines unfolding in sync throughout the book.  As a result, even though the tale is complex and layered it is straightforward to follow.  There is some graphic violence in the telling, but it is necessary to the story.  Despite the positives, the story does start to unravel a little toward the end, with at least one too many plot twists for my liking (in a tale full of twists).  Nevertheless, A Dark Place to Die is a strong start to a new series.  As a final aside: I have no idea why the cover shows a dungeon, or why the tag line is ‘no escape, no rescue, no mercy’; they totally fail to capture the essence of the book.  The Australian cover which uses a Gormley statue, with the tagline ‘killing the messenger was only the beginning’ is much more appropriate. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been quite a while since I've spent part of a weekend writing a lecture, but this week coming is jam-packed so I've spent a couple of hours putting together some slides on the rural economy pre- and post-crash Ireland.  I'm now going to get back to reading Money Shot by Christa Faust, which is way more interesting than agricultural policy and zombie hotels, being an entertaining, pacy, racy noir.

My posts this week
Review of Slaughter's Hound by Declan Burke
Stiffed to be published by Snubnose Press
Family lines
Review of Even Flow by Darragh McManus
Google Scholar and finding useful stuff
The captain has switched on the seatbelt sign

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The captain has switched on the seatbelt sign

‘Are you okay?’

‘Never been better.’

‘Why do you insist on having a window seat if you hate flying?’

‘So I can see what the hell’s going on.’

‘As if that’s going to make a difference.  If this baby hits the ground from 35,000 feet none of us are getting out alive.’

‘You’re not helping, Ross.’

‘The only thing between us and certain death is a couple of millimetres of aluminium and the laws of physics.’

The plane dropped violently in the turbulence.

‘Oh god.’

‘There should be a sick bag in the seat pocket ... shit, not over me!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, November 9, 2012

Google Scholar and finding useful stuff

I have a healthy scepticism for 'key performance indicators' and seem to spend half my life trying to work against the neoliberalizing processes reshaping the higher education landscape.  And I understand all the various issues concerning the interpretation of citation scores, etc.  Nevertheless, passing the 5,000 mark on Google Scholar earlier this week gave me a little smile.  It seems that some folk find some of the stuff I write useful (or at least cite it) and that total has the feel of some kind of landmark number even if it is completely arbitary.  I created the profile because I had to supply citation data in sum and for individual papers for a grant application I was writing and it was straightforward to use.

Where I'm finding it most useful, however, is with respect to the recommedations that it provides about papers it thinks I will find interesting based on my publication profile (what I'm writing about and who I cite).  Just this morning I discovered Jeremy Crampton et al's 'Beyond the geotag?' paper, that I now plan to read in the next couple of weeks (you just click on the 'My Updates' to see the latest suggestions).  I'm now discovering a whole rake of useful material in a timely fashion that I probably wouldn't have come across otherwise.  Might be worth checking out if, like me, you don't get to browse the literature as much as you'd like.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review of Even Flow by Darragh McManus (2012, Roundfire Books)

Wilde, Whitman and Waters are the three members of the 3W gang in New York City.  Inspired by feminism, resistance and art movements, they have turn vigilante, administering justice to misogynists and homophobes - what they call ‘enforced karma’.  The gang video their exploits and send them to a local TV station.  They pass the first tape on to the police and the case is assigned to Detective Sergeant Danny Everard, a gay cop who is going through a messy break-up.  As Danny tries to track the gang members, they become more daring, and their exploits start to gain notoriety as they’re leaked on to the internet and to other media stations.  Whilst he has sympathy with the their message, Danny can’t condone their approach, and a cat-and-mouse chase ensues. 

Even Flow is difficult to categorise - it’s kind of a political, screwball noir.  It took me a chapter or so to get into the story, but once it clicked into place the pages just flew-by.  The second half of the story is especially strong as the action, dialogue and politics all get ratcheted-up, and it has a very nice noir ending.  It helped that the cultural references were of my generation and that the gender and sexual politics of the gang are ones that I share.  Interestingly, the text is broken up by photo-dialogue pieces, newspaper articles, emails and art.  The characterisation is a little thin, but what makes this a fun and engaging read is the plot and politics.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their noir to have a deeper message.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Family lines

I spent part of the weekend taking a look at the family tree.  My dad has been working on it for a few years and has made a lot of progress.  There’s now 1,447 people in the tree.  He’s got back 13 generations on one line to 1660 and most others to early 1700s.  On my direct descendent line (excluding all the sibling lines - aunts, uncles, cousins, etc) there are 136 folk.  This part of the tree is complete back to my 4th great-grandparents.

The thing I find interesting about both elements of the tree (my direct line and in general) is the lack of mobility and mixing.  On my paternal side my grandfather’s line is from west Cumberland and grandmother’s line from Bucks/Northants.  On my maternal side my grandmother and grandfather’s lines are from the West Midlands.  There are only a handful of people not who were not born or died in those areas, including the few that emigrated to Australia or the US.  On my direct descendent line there's only one person not born in England: Francis Higgins, born in 1785 in Ireland, who moved to Cumberland and married Ann from Gosforth, and whose granddaughter, Isabella, married John Kitchin in 1860 (my 2nd great-grandfather).  With the exception of the small number born/lived overseas, there are very few people born elsewhere out of the 1,331 other people in the tree - 6 in Ireland, 3 in Scotland, 2 in Wales, 1 in Germany.  Pretty much everyone married someone from within a few miles of where they grew up and lived there their whole lives.  Seems stasis is something of a family trait.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Stiffed to be published by Snubnose Press

Yesterday I received the countersigned contract from Snubnose Press for the publication of my novel, Stiffed.  I'm delighted to be joining a great set of writers at an up-and-coming press run by the good folk who produce Spinetingler Magazine.   

Stiffed is a fast paced screwball noir set in a small town in New England.  Here's the tagline and working back cover blurb.


Friends help you move … true friends help you move bodies

Tadhg Maguire wakes to find himself spooning a dead man.  The stiff is Tony Marino, lieutenant to mobster Aldo Pirelli.  It doesn't matter how the local enforcer ended up between Tadhg’s sheets, Pirelli is liable to leap to the wrong conclusion and demand rough justice. 

The right thing to do would be to call the cops. 

The sensible thing to do would be to disappear.  Forever. 

The only other option is to get rid of the body and pretend it was never there.  No body, no crime. 

What he needs is a couple of friends to help dispose of the heavy corpse.  Little do Tadhg’s friends know what kind of reward they’ll receive for their selfless act – threatened, chased, shot at, and kidnapped with demands to return a million dollars they don’t possess. 

By mid-afternoon Tadhg is the most wanted man in America.  Not bad for someone who’d never previously had so much as parking ticket. 

If he survives the day he’s resigned to serving time, but not before he saves his friends from the same fate.

Now onto editing, tweaking, proofing, etc. as the book moves toward publication.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review of Slaughter’s Hound by Declan Burke (Liberties Press, 2012)

After a spell in mental health unit after killing his brother, Harry Rigby, one time private investigator, is now driving a taxi and making ends meet shipping drugs round Sligo town on the Northwest coast of Ireland.  Finn Hamilton, his independently wealthy former room-mate, runs a pirate radio station, broadcasting from the top of the old Port Authority tower.  After a late night run to drop off some weed, Harry watches Finn dive from his studio, landing head first on his cab.  Rather than wait for the police to arrive he heads to Finn’s mother to tell her of her son’s death.  It's the early hours of the morning, but Harry’s day is about to get a whole lot worse as everything he does leads to more woes - tangling with an ambitious cop, ex-paramilitaries turned drug dealers, the warring Hamilton family, a dodgy solicitor and his bodyguard, and his former partner and teenage son.  Harry is on a downward spiral, but he’s resourceful and fighter, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of Finn’s supposed suicide dive - especially since if he didn't dive, he's the prime suspect for pushing him to his death.

Slaughter’s Hound is the sequel to Eight Ball Boogie, Burke’s first novel published in 2004.  In the intervening time he’s published three other novels, the last of which, Absolute Zero Cool, was my read of 2011.  Burke’s trademark as a wordsmith is in strong evidence in Slaughter’s Hound, the sense of place and characterisation is strong throughout, and the noir plot was nicely constructed.  However, for me it was a book of two halves.  After an excellent opening scene, the first half I found quite slow and ponderous and I struggled to get into the story.  It lacked the pace, wit and action of his other work, sacrificed to in-depth characterisation and observational asides.  The second half, in contrast, was excellent with dark humour, pathos, and twists and turns aplenty as it hurtled to its sinister, action-packed resolution.  If the first half had been compressed into a third, then this would have been a really great read.  As it stands, Slaughter’s Hound is a good, solid, noir tale, firmly rooted in North West Ireland.       

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

For anyone living in and around Dublin, or fancy trip to the city, there are two crime writing events at this year's Dublin Book Festival. On Thursday 15th November, 6.30-7.30pm, Niamh O'Connor, Conor Brady, Sam Millar and Louise Philips will discuss their inspirations.  Later that same evening, 8.00-9.15pm, Sean Moncrieff and Michael Clifford will discuss writing in the shadows of the recession with Niamh O'Connor.  I have Louise Phillips' new book Red Ribbons on the TBR - I must give it a read. 

My posts this week:
Review of The Untouchables by Shane Ross and Nick Webb
The UK seeks to emulate the Irish model of development, planning and construction?
Manchester side-bar
Review of HHhH by Laurent Binet
October reads
The makings of a grouch

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The makings of a grouch

‘What are you doing?’

‘Go back to sleep.’

‘You’re watching a video on your phone?’

‘I’m too tired to read.’

‘So go to sleep then.’

‘I can’t, that’s why I’m watching a video.’

‘Is there something wrong?’

‘No.  I just can’t sleep, that’s all.’

‘You’re working too hard.  You’re head’s so stuffed full of nonsense it can’t slow to a rest.  You need to stop doing so much.’

‘Like that’s my choice.  Go back to sleep, you’ll be tired in the morning.’

‘And you won’t be?’

‘I’m used to it. You’ll be a grouch.’

‘That’ll make two of us then.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October reads

I'm somewhat surprised that I read and reviewed ten books in October.  It didn't feel like a ten book month.  It was a bit of a mixed bag.  The standout book was Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon, a crime thriller set in the Turkish city in the months after the Second World War.  I've already bought another his books, The Good German, which I hope to read soon.

HHhH by Laurent Binet ***
The Untouchables by Shane Ross and Nick Ross ***
Dust Devils by James Reasoner ***
A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari ***
Restless by William Boyd ****
Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon ******
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin ****
Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie ***.5
The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman ****.5
The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal ***.5